The Pulse

The Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 Shows Pakistan’s Diplomatic Subservience to Saudi Arabia

Recent Features

The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

The Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 Shows Pakistan’s Diplomatic Subservience to Saudi Arabia

What does the Kuala Lumpur summit tell us about Pakistan’s foreign policy?

The Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 Shows Pakistan’s Diplomatic Subservience to Saudi Arabia
Credit: Facebook via ImranKhanOfficial

The Kuala Lumpur summit, which is taking place in Malaysia, signposted a deepening divide in the Muslim world. The summit has highlighted curbs on some states’ ability to navigate freely among different blocs and alliances.

Pakistan’s limits in this regard are on full display this week. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, has canceled his scheduled attendance at the Kuala Lumpur summit following his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, Riyadh is not happy with Malaysia’s attempt to build a platform that could potentially challenge the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is led by Saudi Arabia.

The summit has become controversial after Malaysia’s refusal to extend invites to Saudi Arabia and its close allies in the Gulf region. Reportedly, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Pakistan were the primary invitees to the summit, which includes more than 400 Muslim scholars from across the world.

Malaysia’s prime minister in consultation with other Muslim-majority states, particularly Pakistan and Turkey, decided to hold the summit to deliberate issues that the Muslim world faces globally. Khan not only offered his support for the initiative, but also announced that he would attend the event. For Islamabad, the summit in Malaysia offered an opportunity when it comes to discussing the Kashmir issue. The sentiment in Pakistan’s policymaking circles is that the OIC has done virtually nothing to call out India or offer support to Pakistan globally in this regard.

However, for Riyadh, the idea of Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia potentially building an alternative platform to the OIC directly challenges Saudi Arabia’s political and diplomatic outreach in the Muslim world. The success of such an initiative would mean that in the coming months and years, the OIC’s role may be further sidelined.

Arguably, the fact that Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan decided to hold a summit to discuss issues such as the ongoing situation in Jammu and Kashmir is a reflection of the OIC’s politicization and attachment to Saudi interests. The countries participating in the summit have been quite critical of India’s recent moves in Jammu and Kashmir. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf region have not sided with Pakistan mainly due to India’s growing economic clout. While Riyadh showed solidarity with Islamabad and expressed concern over New Delhi’s unilateral move in Kashmir, the UAE termed it India’s internal matter.

Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, and Iran have emerged as the evident opponents of India’s decision to revoke Article 370 of the Indian constitution. It’s important to note that the OIC, which is dominated by Saudi Arabia and states in the Gulf region, has gone soft on the Kashmir issue. In fact, Riyadh has made efforts to bring India into the OIC’s ambit. This has divided the forum and impacted its vision of addressing the issues of the Muslim world.

Over the last couple of years, the OIC has also condemned the Houthis’ role in Yemeni politics and declared the group a threat to regional peace and stability. This directly goes against Iran’s policy preferences regarding the ongoing war in Yemen.

It’s a strategic blunder that Pakistan has decided not to participate in the Kuala Lumpur summit and completely yielded to Saudi pressure. Riyadh’s anger over the initiative is such that Pakistan was forced to cancel even its ministerial-level representation. Pakistan’s decision shows that Riyadh still retains significant leverage over Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The costs for Pakistan are excessive. The fact that Pakistan is skipping the event shows that its foreign policy remains vulnerable to outside pressures. It also confirms that states like Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia, which favored Pakistan’s position on Kashmir, cannot expect Islamabad to protect its own interests. This directly puts to question Pakistan’s so-called ability to negotiate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The development exposes existing debates concerning Islamabad’s intervention to negotiate a settlement between Riyadh and Tehran. Going forward, Pakistan’s ability to navigate its partnership between two major Islamic camps will remain severely constrained.

The forum and the surrounding controversy not only underscores the growing differences in the Muslim world but also offers insights into Pakistan’s foreign policy constraints. After this event, Pakistan’s decision-makers need to engage in serious introspection about the country’s future.